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Emergency Evacuations – Looking for a Way Out

OSHA strongly recommends that all businesses have an emergency action plan in place that covers procedures for evacuations and sheltering. In some cases, you may be required by OSHA regulations to have a written plan in place (29 CFR 1910.38). You and your employees need to know exactly what to do in any emergency situation, from fires to natural disasters to chemical spills.

When developing your emergency action plan, it’s important to determine the following:

  • Conditions under which an evacuation would be necessary
  • Conditions under which it’s better to shelter in place
  • A clear chain of command and designation of the person in your business authorized to order an evacuation or shutdown
  • Specific evacuation procedures, including routes and exits (note that special procedures are required for high-rise buildings)
  • Procedures for assisting visitors and employees to evacuate, particularly those with disabilities or those who don’t speak English
  • Designation of any employees who will remain after the alarm to shut down critical operations or perform other duties before evacuating
  • A means of accounting for employees after evacuation
  • Appropriate respirators, especially for employees with emergency response duties

 Customize Your Plan for Relevance

You also want to customize your evacuation plans to the nature of each emergency. Employees may need to respond differently to different threats. Likewise, weather conditions during certain times of the year may preclude use of specific assembly areas or means of egress.

For example, you might want to have employees assemble in one area inside the workplace if threatened by a tornado or a chemical spill on an adjacent highway. On the other hand, faced with a fire or chemical spill inside the workplace, immediate evacuation of the building will be the top priority.

Your emergency action plan should identify different emergency scenarios and describe when and how employees are expected to respond to each. To help you determine what will be required, ask “what if” questions and brainstorm worst-case scenarios.

For example, what would happen if a storage area caught fire, your property was flooded, or a dangerous chemical was released? You and your employees need to know the answer to any such questions and the appropriate response to take in each case.

Boilerplate or Universal Templates

Beware of “boilerplate” plans that are “one-size-fits-all”. More often than not, these shortcuts to planning include procedures and information that would never apply to your workplace, or leave out critical information that does.  Many such templates have been used and reused for many years, containing information that is both outdated and potentially dangerous.

Plans based on boilerplate templates aren’t “bad”, but they do need to be carefully reviewed and vetted for relevance and accuracy. One phrase I’ve seen many times in such plans refers to evacuating smoke filled areas during a fire- directing escaping workers to crawl or get as close to the floor as possible to avoid smoke inhalation, etc. While that advice was appropriate several decades ago when furnishings and building materials were primarily wood, brick or cement, the modern workplace is completely different. In a workplace fire involving the materials in the modern workplace, remaining close to the floor would subject evacuees to deadly, heavier than air gasses and fumes produced by burning plastics and other materials.

Other Key Issues

Here are some other elements that should be incorporated into your emergency action plan:

  • Create and post escape route maps/diagrams. You can use floor diagrams of different parts of your facility and add arrows to designate exit route assignments for each work area. These maps or diagrams should indicate the location of exits, assembly points, and equipment (such as fire extinguishers, first-aid kits, or spill kits, etc.).Post evacuation maps prominently for all employees to see.
  • Designate evacuation wardens/monitors. Wardens or monitors help move people from danger to safe areas during an emergency. They may be designated or volunteer, but either way they must be well trained in your emergency procedures. Generally, one warden/monitor for every 20 employees should be adequate. And remember, you need to have these people available on every shift.
  • Incorporate procedures for visitors. Most visitors to your facility will be unfamiliar with evacuation routes and procedures. They’ll need assistance from your warden/monitors and other employees. They also should be accounted for following an evacuation. It’s a good idea for many reasons–emergency response among them–to have all visitors sign in and out. That way, you’ll be able to account for them in an emergency.
  • Coordinate plans with other employers in the same establishment. If you share a work site or industrial park with other employers, it’s a good idea to coordinate emergency plans so that you can help one another provide the best protection for all employees.
  • Account for critical operations that require time to shut down. If you expect any employees to stay behind to perform an emergency shutdown, your plan should describe these procedures in detail. Designated workers must also be trained to handle the task as well as to recognize when to abandon the operation and evacuate before their escape route is blocked.
  • Review and incorporate regulatory requirements. Your emergency action plan must comply with federal and state requirements. Some states have stricter requirements than OSHA’s emergency action rules (29 CFR 1910.38). If your state is one of those, you must comply with the stricter standards.

Of course, the best laid plans are worthless until they are tested and proven. Tomorrow’s article will address the drilling and training aspects- crucial for a successful evacuation plan.

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  1. July 23, 2013 at 12:05 AM

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